Farmers see both sides of rail blockade

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Some see themselves in land rights fight while others worry about rail shipments

By: Hallie Cotnam 

With no trains running on CN Rails in eastern Canada for a week, many farmers are becoming anxious about the potential impact on their livelihoods. 

It’s been nearly two weeks since Tyendinaga Mohawk protesters set up camp along the tracks near Belleville, Ont., in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en opponents of a natural gas pipeline in B.C. Their actions prompted CN Rail to suspend service, and Via Rail to cancel dozens of passenger trains.

Keith Currie is president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. He’s also a hay and sweet corn farmer near Collingwood, Ont., whose operation relies on propane.

“When it runs out, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Currie told CBC’s Ottawa Morning.

Currie said farmers are now planning for spring and are worried about the supply of fertilizer, which is normally shipped by rail. He said the shutdown will also affect farmers’ ability to ship livestock.

“There’s a lot of moving parts here, and certainly at the core of this is rail transportation,” he said.

Currie says the OFA acknowledges that “Indigenous Canadians have fundamental issues that we need to deal with, especially in order to reach full reconciliation … [but] these protests that are paralyzing the country are not helpful in that process.

“Canadians are getting upset,” he said. “We are humans. We do get emotional. And it certainly is crippling the economy.”

Tactics from the farmers’ playbook

But not all farmers are blaming the protesters. The National Farmers Union (NFU) has come out publicly in support of them. 

Ayla Fenton runs a small organic vegetable farm near Perth, Ont., and is the Ontario vice-president of the NFU. She recognizes the rail shutdown is hurting some farmers, but told CBC’s Ontario Morning “land defenders are also suffering from 500 years of colonization and removal from their land.”

In fact, Fenton said, the blockade and similar tactics are from the farmers’ own playbook.

“Farmers in Canada … have a very long history of using non-violent direct action to assert our rights and defend our economic interests.” 

To farmers who are speaking out against protestors, Fenton had this to say: “Other people who are suffering are not your enemy. The anger that exists among farmers … about the rail blockades needs to be directed at those with the power to resolve the situation.”

On that point, Currie and Fenton agree.

“The federal government needs to step up here and resolve this as soon as possible,” Currie said. “They can debate it in the House all they want. The reality is they need to get on with having discussions with [the ​​​​​protestors] to finally resolve this situation.”

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